The five(*) truth commissions that investigated communist abuses share some important features translating into both advantages and disadvantages for their activity. First, the German and the Romanian commissions were set up without much prompting and support from the international community, whereas the Baltic commissions had a more international flavor, not only because these three countries decided together to employ this particular transitional justice method, but also because those bodies included foreign members. In all Baltic countries the research, documentation and writing of final reports were completed by national support staff. Truly “international” commissions enjoy independence from the fractured societies they investigate–including former torturers placed in the government, the police, the secret police and the army who could block or distort their work–but they can translate independence into lack of legitimacy and aloofness toward the very societies they are called to serve. As predominantly “domestic” bodies, all post-communist commissions except the Estonian one were in a better position to have their results accepted by the society. The inclusion of a limited number of foreign members was regarded as an advantageous move that would promote “impartiality in the work of the commission” and give it access to the newest research tools developed in the West (Chancery of the President of Latvia, 2005).

Second, all post-communist commissions released final reports detailing their activity, the results of their investigations, and the evidence they amassed to document communist-era human rights trespasses. This is no small accomplishment, given the fact that the period of time under investigation was relatively long (in all five cases), the commissions were large and ran the risk of disagreement among members (especially in the German and Romanian cases) or their complex mandate covered atrocities perpetrated by both the Nazi and the Soviet occupation forces (in the Baltic cases). The fact that all five commissions concluded their activity with well-written reports in relatively short periods of time attests to their overall efficacy and accountability to the political actors that created them. Note that the Latvian commission produced a series of published materials that it regards in its totality as its final report.

Equally commendable was these commissions’ willingness to name perpetrators, a choice that similar bodies in other parts of the world refused to make. Concerns for the safety of commission members, perpetrators, witnesses, victims and their relatives, and the society at large prompted some truth commissions to abstain from including names in the final reports (Guatemala) or to provide just the names of torturers mentioned by victims in their testimonials (Argentina). By disclosing the names of perpetrators and victims, post-communist truth commissions traveled the road from a general, abstract account of atrocities to an individualized account that brings much-deserved recognition for past human rights abuses and closure to the wronged victims and their surviving relatives.

One drawback was the fact that the final reports of these commissions were academic in nature, making them unintelligible to the wider public. In this sense, the five commissions attained greater precision for the truth they uncovered about communist-era atrocities at the expense of justice for the victims and reconciliation for the society at large. This choice, the result of the lack of subpoena and amnesty-granting powers, was reflected in the way commissions conducted their work prior to writing the final report. Except for the German commission, the other bodies held no public hearings, preferring to conduct their activity in relative isolation from the civil society, the victims’ groups, and the general public. Even the German commission was unable to organize the face-to-face meetings between victims and victimizers for which the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission became famous. Open public hearings require the cooperation of abusive decision-makers, something no post-communist commission could secure, but they make the public more familiar with the work of the commission and more prone to embrace the results of its investigation. Instead, all five post-communist reports were designed by their authors, and regarded by the public, as mostly academic research products destined for an academic audience. This inability to provide public healing was a matter of concern for many observers. One commentator noted that the German commission left “eastern Germans largely on the side-lines as their past was reconciled on their behalf” (Yoder, 1999, 77). The same can be said about the other post-communist commissions.

Post-communist truth commissions were political in nature, being set up by the Parliament (Germany) or the Presidents (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania) in order to signify a radical break with the repressive past and its practices of human rights violations. The German Parliament’s drive to set up the truth commission was seemingly inspired by a desire to be as comprehensive and as representative as possible in the effort to atone for communist crimes. By 1991, each of the five political parties represented in the all-German Parliament, where center-right and center-left formations from both East and West Germany were represented, favored the creation of an investigatory commission (Yoder, 1999). The presidential truth commissions of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania aimed to bring additional legitimacy and popularity to the Presidents who established them. To boost their political prominence vis-à-vis weak and hesitant Parliaments, the Presidents used a radical anticommunist discourse. All three Baltic Presidents were drawn from the ranks of former communist-era victims, but the anticommunist credentials of the Romanian President Traian Basescu were dubitable (Stan 2005). A sea captain who represented communist Romania’s ship industry in Antwerp before becoming a director in the communist Ministry of Transportation, Basescu started his post-communist political career in the National Salvation Front, heir to the Communist Party. In 2004, his anticommunism represented a well-thought strategy that permitted him to win the Presidency.

The five post-communist truth commissions are presented below chronologically. As in other respects, Germany was a pioneer in the region, being the first to establish a commission in May 1992, two and a half years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and nearly two years after the country’s reunification (Welsh, 2006). At the time, truth commissions did not receive much international recognition as transitional justice methods, though they had proved their utility in several Latin American post-junta democracies. By the time the Baltic commissions were set up in late 1998, however, the much celebrated South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission had concluded its activity and had helped truth commissions gain international acceptance as effective tools of coming to terms with the past. The Baltic efforts were partly inspired by success stories in other countries and a desire to come to terms with the darker chapters of these countries’ recent past. There is, however, little evidence that the Baltic decision-makers knew the German precedent in depth. The most recent commission was established in Romania with the public, the local academic community and even the commission members believing that it was “a first in the post-communist world” (Cesereanu, 2008, 278). In this respect, the country reinvented the wheel, without the advantage of learning from its neighbors’ accomplishments and mistakes.

The German Commission of 1992

The Commission of Inquiry for the Assessment of History and Consequences of the SED Dictatorship in Germany (Enquete Kommission zur Aufarbeitung von Geschichte und Folgen der SED-Diktator in Deutschland) was created by the German Parliament to document and investigate the practices of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), the Communist Party that ruled East Germany singlehandedly from 1949 to 1989 (Act no. 12/2597 of 14 May 1992). Recognizing that “the legacy of the SED dictatorship continues to be a burden preventing people in [unified] Germany from coming together” and that “to work through the history and the consequences of the SED…is a joint task of all Germans” and important “for the purpose of truly unifying Germany,” the law mandated the commission to carry out eight different, but inter-related, tasks.

These tasks were the following: “to analyze the structures, strategies and instruments of the SED dictatorship, in particular the issue of responsibilities for the violation of human and civil rights and the destruction of nature and the environment,” “to evaluate the significance of ideology, integrative factors and disciplining practices,” “to examine the violation of international human rights agreements and standards and the forms of appearance of oppression in various phases; to identify groups of victims and consider possibilities of material and moral restitution,” “to work out the possibilities and forms of deviating and resistant behavior and oppositional action in the various spheres along with the factors that influenced them,” “to illustrate the role and identity of the churches in the various phases of the SED dictatorship,” “to judge the significance of the international conditions, particularly the influence of Soviet politics on the GDR,” “to examine the significance of the relation” between the two German states, and finally “to include the issue of continuities and analogies of thought, behavior and structures in 20th century German history, particularly the period of the national socialist dictatorship” (Act no. 12/2597).

The commission’s task was meant to be feasible and attainable in a reasonable period of time, more than to be comprehensive. Many crimes perpetrated by or with communist support had occurred outside the period under examination. To investigate communist crimes, the commission could hold “discussions with interested parties and citizens’ groups, with scientists, scholars and grass-roots groups which work through GDR history” and “public hearings and forums,” and could “commission presentation of expert assessments and scholarly studies” (Act no. 12/2597). It could consult relevant archives, including the secret archive of the Ministry of State Security (Ministerium fur Staatssicherheit or the Stasi) managed by the Gauck Agency (Bundesbeauftragter für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik). From May 1992 to May 1994, the commission conducted 44 public hearings, met in 40 additional closed sessions, and held 150 related subcommittee hearings about some of the most hotly debated topics in the history of divided Germany (McAdams 2001a and 2001b). It commissioned 148 academic papers on 95 questions dealing with various aspects of the SED dictatorship (Weber, 1997). Although it had no subpoena powers, the commission heard over 100 witnesses representing victims of repression who were willing to come before it and detail their story of life under the hammer and sickle. Fearful that their testimony might be used against them in court sometimes in the future, senior government officials declined to testify when invited.

Chaired by Rainer Eppelmann, the commission included 16 members of Parliament, Dorothea Wilms, Dirk Hansen, Dietmar Keller, Markus Meckel, and Gerd Poppe, among them. Commission members were joined in their activity by 11 outside-Parliament experts and a substantial support staff that organized the public hearings and kept a written record of testimonials. Instead of being chosen from among politically independent luminaries, commission members were nominated by parties represented in Parliament. For example, Wilms represented the ruling Christian Democrats, whereas former Minister of Foreign Affairs Meckel represented the opposition Social Democrats. Some commission members were respected former East German dissidents who had suffered at the hands of the SED or the Stasi. A former pastor working with young people and the co-author of the Berlin Appeal of 1982 that asked communist authorities to join the international peace movement, Eppelmann pressed for a radical and comprehensive reckoning with the communist past (Bacher, 1985). Poppe represented the Peace and Human Rights Initiative, one of the few opposition groups constituted in East Germany. Under the communist regime, Poppe lost his jobs, was frequently detained and harassed for more than two decades for his refusal to toe the party line. The Stasi tried to break up his marriage, and to turn his friends against him (Kinzer, 1992). In 1969, the 17-year-old Meckel was expelled from school because of his political stance. He enrolled at the church-operated school to pursue theological studies.

In June 1994, the commission presented the German Parliament with its final report, which consisted of 18 volumes containing 15.378 pages of information. The report included thematic papers commissioned to outside researchers and summaries of the public hearings where those papers were presented. Given its considerable length, the report was not directed to the larger audience. Some of its language was considered “ponderous” (Garton Ash, 1998), whereas some of its historical judgments represented compromises between West German political parties worried about their own past connections to the East German repressive regime. Because it privileged “only selected historical narratives” (Welsh, 2006, 145), the report and the commission’s activity had “minimal” effects “from the point of view of the average former East German citizen” (Sa’adah, 1998, 185). As a result, German politicians “probably would have better served their long-term interests had they pushed for a less stereotypical assessment of the sources of stability and discord under communist rule” (McAdams, 2001a, 174). These shortcomings probably derived from the fact that “although most witnesses came from the east, most commission members and historians who testified were West German” (Welsh, 2006, 145).

Overall, however, the report presented invaluable documentation for students of East German dictatorship. It covered everything from “the role of the Stasi to that of the churches, the power structures, the police and the judiciary, the opposition, and the relations with West Germany” (Garton Ash, 1998). The commission was so successful that its recommendations were embraced by the German Parliament. One such recommendation called for the creation of a second commission to carry out its mission. The Commission of Inquiry on Overcoming the Consequences of the SED started its work in 1995. At its prompting, on 5 June 1998 the Bundestag established the Stiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur, a foundation destined to investigate the communist past.

The second commission was a study commission, whereas its predecessor was a commission of inquiry, according to the Bundestag. Commissions of inquiry are formed entirely of members of Parliament, whereas study commissions include legislators and independent experts, all enjoying the same rights. Together with public hearings, study commissions are instruments by means of which the Bundestag draws on external expertise. The Commission of Inquiry on Overcoming the Consequences of the SED included 12 members of Parliament and 12 experts. At least one member of the first commission also belonged to the second (Meckel). Unlike reports submitted by inquiry commissions, the reports prepared by study commissions cannot include recommendations for decisions by the Bundestag. Rather, “if the Bundestag is to take a decision on them, proposals contained in the reports must be taken up by the plenary or by the Federal Government and introduced in the Bundestag in the form of a motion or bill” (Bundestag, no year).

The Three Baltic Commissions

In the late 1990s, the Baltic states began to see the benefits of reckoning with their past with the help of truth commissions. In response to calls for reevaluating their involvement in the Holocaust in the early 1940s, from September to November 1998 the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania set up investigative commissions of historians, whose mandate was soon expanded to include an investigation of atrocities perpetrated by the Soviet regime. Fearful that the “local complicity during the Holocaust would be swept under the carpet by an overwhelming official narrative of Baltic victimhood at the hands of the USSR” (Kott, 2007, 321), international observers deplored the move, but had to concede in the end that such fears were unfounded, as the Holocaust figured prominently in the publications produced by all three commissions.

The first Baltic commission, the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania (Tarptautine komisija Naciu ir Sovietinio okupaciniu rezimu nusikaltimams Lietuvoje ivertinti), was created by President Valdas Adamkus on 7 September 1998 with the mission to search for the historical truth and provide a forum for uncensored discussion of the country’s repressive past. Adamkus had a personal stake in the process. After joining the underground anti-Soviet resistance movement, during World War II he escaped to the United States, from where he returned to run for the Lithuanian presidency in the February 1998 elections. During its first meeting of 17 November 1998, the truth commission recognized that the Nazi and Soviet regimes carried out repression for different reasons, with different goals, and with the help of different methods and, as a result, constituted two sub-committees each entrusted with the task of studying one occupation regime. In turn, each sub-committee supervised the activity of an independent working group of experts investigating crimes committed as a result of the Nazi or the Soviet occupation.

The 12-member Lithuanian commission was chaired by Emanuelis Zingeris, the respected signatory of the Act of Lithuania’s Restoration of Independence from the Soviet Union of 11 March 1991. The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the last Lithuanian Parliament constituted before the country’s break-up from the Soviet Union, Zingeris was the grandson of a Jewish couple who, in the 1940s, poisoned themselves rather than surrender to the Nazis (Rosenthal, 1990). Seven commission members were Lithuanian: three well-known historians, one representative of the Lithuanian President, the respected Roman Catholic Bishop of Telsiai Antanas Vaicius, one Lithuanian academic teaching in the United States (history Prof. Saulius Suziedelis) and Kestutis Girnius, the former coordinator of the radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Baltic service, which in communist times was the most important broadcaster of a viewpoint alternative to the official communist one. Among the foreign commission members were three representatives of the Israeli Yad Vashem and the American Jewish Congress, and two British and German history professors. In May 2005 Adamkus reconfirmed the commission’s membership by presidential decree.

From 2004 to 2006, the sub-commission analyzing the Nazi occupation of Lithuania published three volumes on the 1941-1944 period (Truskas and Vareikis, 2004; Dieckmann, Toleikis and Zizas, 2005; Dieckmann and Suziedelis, 2006). In 2006 and 2007, the sub-commission examining the two Soviet occupations released three volumes on the first Soviet annexation of 1940-1941 (Jakubcionis, Knezys and Streikus, 2006; Anusauskas, 2006; and Maslauskiene and Petraviciute, 2007). During the same period of time some progress was achieved in the investigation of the second Soviet occupation of 1945-1991, but no final report on that historical period was published to date. In 2002, the commission discussed the results of its research on the role of the Soviet suppression of armed resistance to the country’s re-annexation in 1945 and the forced mobilization of Lithuanians into the Soviet Red Army before the end of World War II, that is, from August 1944 to May 1945. In December 2003 it further examined the Soviet structures of repression and the Lithuanians’ collaboration with them, while in April 2005 it debated the Soviet-organized mass deportations of Lithuanians, the mass arrests and tortures, and the religious persecution of 1944-1953. It is likely that the commission will take some time to disseminate its conclusions on the 1945-1991 Soviet occupation to the public.

On 2 October 1998, the Estonian International Commission for Investigation of Crimes against Humanity (Inimsusevastaste Kuritegude Uurimise Eesti Rahvusvahelise Komisjon) was created by President Lennart Meri to investigate crimes against humanity perpetrated by the German and Soviet occupation forces. As a young boy, Meri was deported to Siberia with his family. This was Estonia’s second attempt to use truth commissions as methods to reckon with its recent past. In 1991, Parliament established the State Commission on the Examination of Repression Policies (Okupatsioonide Repressiivpoliitika Uurimise Riiklik Komisjon) to document the acts of repression perpetrated on Estonian territory and against Estonian nationals, and the ensuing economic damages to the Estonian people. Because of shortage of personnel, an imprecise mandate and the difficulty to obtain relevant archival documents, this body dragged its feet, and was unable to release a final report by 2008. As this all-Estonian parliamentary commission reached no conclusion in its first seven years of activity, President Meri set up the international commission with a narrower and clearer mandate.

The seven-member international commission was chaired by the respected Finnish Minister Max Jakobson. It included Nicholas Lane (Chairman of the International Relations Commission of the American Jewish Committee), Uffe Ellemann-Jensen (President of the European Liberal Party, former Foreign Minister of Denmark), Peter Reddaway (Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University), Arseny Roginsky (Chairman of the Council of the Scientific and Educational Center Memorial of Moscow), Paul Goble (Director of Communications and Public Relations, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), and Wolfgang Freiherr von Stetten (Professor, Mitglied des Deutschen Bundestages). Notable was the effort to co-opt representatives of the Jewish victims’ groups and the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, but also a German and a Russian, representing the two ethnic groups that had transformed from oppressors into oppressed.

The commission met for the first time on 26 January 1999 to agree on the manner in which its mandate was to be transposed into practice. During debates, commission members agreed to investigate crimes against humanity committed during three distinct historical periods: 1) the first occupation of Estonia by Soviet forces in 1940-1941; 2) the occupation of Estonia by German forces in 1941-1944; and finally 3) the second Soviet occupation beginning in 1944. For practical purposes, the work of the commission was divided into two different stages. The first to be investigated was the German occupation, followed by the two Soviet occupations, which were to be analyzed together, given their manifold similarities and continuities. The commission was conceived as a non-judicial body tasked with the collection of information not in order to launch judicial actions against individuals or institutions, but to illuminate the past in the hope of educating the Estonian and international publics about totalitarian horrors. In 2006 the commission published its two-volume final report of 1,337 pages as Estonia 1940-1945, a compilation of short articles devoted to narrowly defined topics of historical relevance.

On 13 November 1998, Latvia created the Commission of the Historians (Vesturnieku Komisija) under the auspices of President Guntis Ulmanis, a little-known economist whom Parliament had elected as President in 1993. Chaired by Prof. Andris Caune, it included 24 members, making it one of the largest commissions in the world. Most of its 12 Latvian members were historians affiliated with the Institute of History, the Faculty of History and Philosophy at the University of Latvia, the State History Archives, and the Museum of Occupation. An additional 12 academics from the United States, Sweden, Germany, Israel and Russia were appointed. The research was carried out by 25 Latvian historians commissioned to draft reports on the crimes against humanity committed on Latvian territory in 1940-1956. Four independent working groups investigated different time periods or types of crimes. One group looked at the Soviet occupation of 1940-1941, two other groups examined the Holocaust and the crimes against humanity of 1941-1944, whereas the fourth group investigated the Soviet occupation of 1944-1956. In 2004, commission members were reconfirmed, and the mandate of the commission was extended to include the entire Soviet period up to 1991 (Chancery of the President of Latvia, 2005).

The Latvian commission was the only post-communist commission not to compile a final report of its activity in the form of one single multi-volume book released at the end of its activity. Instead, the Latvian Commission of Historians recognized that a finite time period (even one extending over a decade) was insufficient for the commission to understand the recent past in all its complexity and for the Latvian society to be fully educated about it. As a result, the commission chose to organize a series of annual conferences open to the public and to publish monographs, conference proceedings and collections of scholarly articles (their number had reached 21 in 2007). Some of these conferences and publications touched on the Soviet deportations of 1941 and 1949 and the killings in Kuldiga and Skrunda, where hundreds of Jewish residents died at the hands of the Nazis and their Latvian sympathizers. In cooperation with the State Archives, the commission launched a database of Latvian victims of the German and Soviet occupations of 1940-1991.

The Romanian Commission

The Presidential Commission for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania (Comisia Prezidentiala pentru Analiza Dictaturii Comuniste in Romania) was set up on 11 April 2006 by President Traian Basescu to investigate the communist regime of 1945-1989 and to compile the report allowing the President to officially condemn the regime for its human rights trespasses (Decizia no. 8/2006). Elected in 2004, President Basescu wanted to deliver the official condemnation before Romania’s acceptance as a full European Union member on 1 January 2007. Thus, the commission had only months at its disposal. Because the timeframe was short, the commission was larger than other similar bodies, and relied on studies previously published by commission members and independent experts.

The commission included 20 members, some known for their past dissident activity or open opposition to the Ceausescu regime (Monica Lovinescu and Virgil Ierunca), others known for their research on the Securitate, its relationship with the dominant Orthodox Church, and the communist repression mechanism (Marius Oprea, Cristian Vasile, Stelian Tanase), and still others selected from among the country’s most respected intellectuals (the Orthodox Metropolitan Nicolae Corneanu of Banat and writer Horia Roman Patapievici). Commission members were aided by 20 historians, who assumed the task of researching and writing the final report. President Basescu allowed commission chairman, University of Maryland Prof. Vladimir Tismaneanu, to constitute the commission without input from parliament, the cabinet or the society. The chairman tried to recruit representatives of a wide range of civic groups, but the membership was vigorously contested by the press. The personal involvement with the communist regime of some commission members came under scrutiny when the press revealed that Tismaneanu had graduated from the Academy of Social and Political Sciences Stefan Gheorghiu, which once trained Communist Party apparatchiks. Things got complicated when Virgil Ierunca died, dissident writer Paul Goma declined the invitation to sit on the commission, and Corneanu and Sorin Antohi admitted to past collaboration with the Securitate. Critics believed that former communist collaborators were not morally entitled to investigate communist crimes.

The commission submitted its final report in time for President Basescu to condemn the communist regime during the joint session of the Romanian bicameral Parliament of 18 December 2006, the first post-communist president to do so. The report was made available to the public first in 2006 through the website of the Presidency, and then in 2007 as a book. The 665 page report was structured into three sections dealing with the structure and role of the Romanian Communist Party, the communist repression and the role of the Securitate, and their impact on society, economy and culture from 1944 to 1989. Because it examined a wide range of human rights abuses, the report represented a good source of documentation on the Romanian communist regime, but its conclusions were rendered indefensible in a court of law by the use of a definition of genocide extending the concept to society, economy and culture.

The final report included recommendations for furthering the transitional justice process in Romania, but most of them were ignored by a government inimical to President Basescu and a society preoccupied mostly with its economic wellbeing. In March 2007, a new 12-member consultative presidential commission was set up under Tismaneanu’s leadership: 1) to analyze the implementation of recommendations to be included in its final report, 2) to propose strategies for their implementation, and 3) to counsel the President on the progress in implementing the report’s recommendations (Decizia no. 5/15 March 2007). This body, which maintained a very low profile, wrapped its activity in 2009.

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(*) This article was published in The Open Political Science Journal (2009), 2, pp. 1-13, available at http://www.bentham.org/open/topolisj/openaccess2.htm. As such, it does not include the Moldovan commission, constituted in early 2010.

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